Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Jewish Response to Nepal

In a message I sent to our Beit Midrash email list this week, I asked people to contribute to our UJA's Emergency Relief Fund for humanitarian aid, to be administered via the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

As I wrote the request, I remembered a brief exchange I had with a congregant about a dozen years ago. In the wake of another natural disaster, I had encouraged people to contribute to an aid campaign. My congregant said to me, "We need to use our money to help our own community; the outside world isn't going to help us, when we need it." He was factually correct; I don't imagine that the Nepalese will build bomb shelters in Israel (although Israeli relations with Nepal aren't bad), or support Jewish schools in Toronto.

I was also reminded of another congregant, who noted to me that the Torah's commandment to love others applies specifically to your fellow Jew (Vayikra 19:18) or to a non-Jew who comes to Judaism (ibid. 19:33). He, too, was correct.

I feel that both of my interlocutors were missing a key point, though.

It is true that the nations of the world will likely not come to view us as family, even when Israeli aid arrives in the form of a mission more than double the size of any other. And it is true that the Torah limits love - the state in which we identify with others, seeing them as part of ourselves, loving them "as ourselves" - specifically to those with whom we share the most intimate values and beliefs. [See, for example, Rambam to Avot 1:6, who specifies sharing of values as the highest form of kinship.] Nonetheless, our tolerance for suffering shouldn't depend on the identity of the sufferer. How can our pure soul not writhe in pain when it witnesses others in agony? How can it not be personally offended by the existence of unremedied suffering?

This is why we act on behalf of those who will not reciprocate and who are not "ours". As I once heard Rabbi Baruch Weintraub note, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a) writes that when we are sensitive to the pain of others, when we are personally offended by the suffering of others, then we are obligated to act.

Our sages taught us this lesson of action in numerous ways. They criticized Noach for failing to reach out sufficiently to his neighbours, and praised Avraham for attempting to influence the fate of his. (Bereishit Rabbah 30:9-10, although one could also read this source as a function of love for G-d) Rambam wrote that we dare not fall into cruelty; we aspire to the sensitivity displayed by G-d, regarding whom King David wrote, "His mercy is upon all of His creations." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 9:8 and Hilchot Melachim 10:12) Our Sages wanted us to understand that even when we don't share a common identity with others, we do share a common humanity with them.

I have made a contribution; I hope that the readers of this blog will be able to do so as well.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Hagbah Shrug

A few weeks ago, in a morning minyan, I saw a gabbai offer hagbah (the honour of lifting the Torah and displaying it to the community after the public Torah reading) to someone near me in shul. He did what I think of as the "Hagbah Shrug", telegraphing in a simple gesture: I don't really want to do this, but I'll do it if you have no one else.

It bothered me.

On one hand, we are taught to humbly refuse honours; see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 53:16, for example, encouraging limited refusal of a request to lead the davening, unless invited by someone of great status. Shunning the spotlight isn't a bad thing; it's a function of humility and of tzniut (privacy).

But on the other hand, refusal strikes me as arrogant, and insulting to the Torah itself. It feels like an expression of indifference. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos v'Hanhagos 2:319) reports that on Simchas Torah, Rav Chaim Brisker would not give away the Torah he was holding at the end of a hakafah, unless someone requested the Torah. This reflects love and respect for the Torah. So what is the message reflected by shrugging, "I'll do it if I must"?

And consider the impact on the next generation. Our teens are already practiced in demonstrating cool disregard for society's honours; it's a natural part of growing up. Do we need to add incentive by showing that everyone does it?

[Not to mention what this does to the poor gabbai; see my 2009 post, Not Me is alive and well in Gabbailand.]

I would suggest an intermediate reaction, displaying respect as well as humility. Perhaps, something along the lines of, "I am honoured to be asked, but I wouldn't mind if someone more worthy would receive it." And if you really don't want to do it, then, "I'm sorry to decline, but I'd really prefer not to, today."

Am I just being hypersensitive?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ulshoneinu Rinah

In advance of my daughter Rena's Bat Mitzvah this past Shabbos, we learned the part of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avos that lists 48 traits needed for success in studying Torah.

We put together a mini-sefer which collects the ideas we developed regarding the 48 traits. It's downloadable from here; feedback would be welcome.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Kashrut: Of Labels Permanent and Transient

Some thoughts on kashrut, from an article appearing in this week's Toronto Torah:

Twenty years ago, a student asked me, “If G-d made a cow, and G-d made a pig, then why am I allowed to eat a cow, but not a pig?” The student was not asking about kashrut as a whole; he wanted to know how our Torah portion could identify particular creations of G-d as permanently impure and off-limits, while marking other Divine creations as pure and permitted. It’s a very old question, and its answer may provide insight into a deep message regarding human nature.

One classic answer is that G-d created certain animals for a purpose other than consumption; eating them would actually harm us. (Yoma 39a, Moreh haNevuchim 3:48) The danger may be physical, or metaphysical; we might even absorb moral character from the permitted and prohibited beasts. (Horeb 454) Each prohibited creature harbours an intrinsic threat.

Another traditional approach suggests that the creatures G-d formed are neither toxic nor beneficial. Nonetheless, G-d provided detailed dietary rules in order to improve our discipline. (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1; Moreh haNevuchim 3:26) Among the benefits of this discipline may be to perpetually recall Divine Truth (Ramban to Devarim 22:6) or to draw closer to G-d. (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 7) Each instruction further envelops the Jew in an all-encompassing life of law.

We might suggest a third idea, based on the Torah’s emphasis on distinguishing between kosher and non-kosher creatures (Vayikra 11:47), and the Talmud’s explanation of two verses in the book of Iyov.

Iyov complained to G-d, “If You wished [to make it so], I would not sin; but none can save from Your Hand.” (Iyov 10:7) The sage Rava expands, “Iyov sought to exempt the entire world from judgment. He said before G-d: Master of the Universe! You created the ox with split hooves and You created the donkey with sealed hooves! You created Gan Eden and You created Gehennom! You created righteous people and You created wicked people! Who can stop You?” (Bava Batra 16a) In other words, Iyov claimed that Man is like the beast, lacking the freedom to choose between the paths of good and evil. Just as a donkey’s sealed hooves mark it as non-kosher for life, so certain people are created as wicked, and they cannot shift their steps from the road to Gehennom. We enter this world bearing the label under which we depart.

With his mention of the ox and the donkey, Iyov identified a critical lesson of the Torah’s division of animals between kosher and non-kosher: the legitimacy of permanent labels. As our Torah portion states in summing up this division, “You are to distinguish between impure and pure, between the beast which may be consumed and the beast which may not be consumed.” (Vayikra 11:47) Every time she decides what to eat, the Jew is warned that there are permanent labels in this world. G-d created the good, and G-d created the malignant, and you are tasked – not only in eating but in life – with identifying the malignant and steering clear of its influence. Do not permit shifting cultural mores and claims of progress to sway your good judgment; among animals and among ideas, there is good which is timeless, and there is evil which is eternally so, and some labels never change.

However, the permanent labels of the animal kingdom are alien to human beings; it is an offense to G-d and Man to typecast any human being for life. As the Talmud interprets the response of Iyov’s visitor Eliphaz, “You would nullify reverence and reduce the study of Torah [sichah] before G-d!” (Iyov 15:4) Yes, human beings exhibit natural weakness, but G-d has provided the influence of Torah to rescue the human being from any depth to which she may sink. Our labels are as transient as we wish them to be.

We might add that the transient label even exists in the world of kashrut, when the human hand intervenes. All animals are non-kosher, until they undergo the shechitah rite of kosher slaughter. Then again, one can transform kosher meat to non-kosher by combining it with milk. Humanity is empowered to alter certain labels.

This may answer the question I was asked twenty years ago. The laws of kashrut teach that there are permanent labels and judgments in our world. However, these laws also demonstrate that labels of the descendants of Adam and Chavah are transient; it is possible for a human being, via Torah, to change her own label from non-kosher to kosher and back. Determining which labels should be transient, and how to alter them, is challenging, but may this moral lesson, which the Talmud sees in Iyov’s dialogue with Eliphaz, inspire us to examine, and alter where appropriate, the labels in our lives.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Of Teaching and Chesed

About a month ago, I posted a question on this blog: "Is teaching a class an act of chesed (generosity)?" I received some insightful emails, as well as good comments on the post; thank you.

As I said on that post, teaching a class just doesn't feel like chesed. I'd like to unpack that here.

I can see three definitions of Chesed:
1) Filling the need of a recipient;
2) Sacrificing personal resources for a recipient;
3) Connecting with a recipient.

In truth, I believe that teaching a class does qualify as Chesed, within all three definitions. A good teacher:
(1) provides for the educational needs of the students;
(2) expends real effort and time in planning how best to convey Torah to the students; and
(3) connects and builds relationships with the students.

So why doesn't it feel like chesed? A few reasons, I think, all tied to the different definitions of chesed I mentioned above:
1) Filling a need - Rabbis need to advertise and recruit people to shiurim; if this were filling a need, would we need to work so hard to persuade people to take advantage? Further, however well-intentioned, a Rabbi may misunderstand or misstate his Torah. A shiur may be wrong without the teacher realizing it, but the benefits of a hospital visit, counseling, a relationship are often visible.

2) Sacrificing personal resources – If I am paid to teach classes, then whatever I do is a fulfillment of that job. It is equally true that a shul rabbi is paid for rabbinic chesed, but when a rabbi sacrifices to go above and beyond in chesed – as happens regularly – it feels more like an uncompensated "extra" than when I learn with a chavruta or give a shiur despite being exhausted.

3) Connecting with others - One can teach Torah without investing emotionally; I believe that such teaching is less successful, but it can be done. On the other hand, the relationship aspect of chesed requires at least sympathy, if not empathy.

I don't see a moral to this story; it may just be something I find interesting. But then again, this is a blog, so I suppose that's okay.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Tzaddik at the Seder?

In the run-up to Pesach, I delivered a shiur on "Pesach: When the Questions Matter More than the Answers" in a few different venues. On a couple of those occasions, as a tangent to the shiur, I asked this question: Why do we have a wise, wicked, simple and unquestioning child in our list of four, but we don't have a tzaddik (righteous child) in the list?

Some suggested that the wise child is righteous, but I disagree.

Some suggested that we cannot ascribe righteousness to our children, but I disagree for two reasons: 1) These are not necessarily small children, and 2) If we cannot ascribe righteousness, how can we ascribe wickedness?

Some suggested that each of these characteristics is only a trait, and not a complete person, and so we cannot discuss a child as righteous, which is a collective trait. I personally agree that these are traits, but I don't see how one could apply this to righteousness and not to wickedness.

At our Seder, I noted that the four children are all presented to us by the Torah in the context of telling our children about our departure from Egypt. The Torah is advising us that we must speak to each of these children in a manner appropriate to them - regardless of their disparate religious personalities.

If so, then perhaps the message of the omission of the tzaddik is this: Each of our children needs the conversation about the Exodus, in a different way. We should see none of them (and none of ourselves, although we may be parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents) as "tzaddik", meaning complete, and being beyond that conversation. The goal is to educate them properly, so that they will grow toward that state, but a parent should never assume that the child is already there. Look for your child's particular need, and address it, to initiate your child into the history and religious identity of our nation.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How I learned to love Mah Nishtanah

I want to write many posts, but I have far too many responsibilities to indulge in writing them. I can justify spending time on this post, though, because it is a מצוה עוברת - it is relevant for our upcoming celebration of Pesach.

I cannot recall ever liking Mah Nishtanah. The contrived set of four questions, taught to children so that they would be able to ask them, just never appealed to me. And then, just last week, my perspective changed entirely.

I was presenting a shiur which was supposed to have a brief "Pesach Halachah: Questions and Answers" component, followed by a dvar torah, but then we began talking about what counts for karpas, and then for marror, and the Q/A expanded to take over the shiur.

My thoughts on karpas are a bit outside the mainstream, as I advocate for pineapple and banana. Ditto re: marror; I believe that horseradish root should not be used for marror.

At the same time, I am a strong believer in minhag (custom), as the glue that holds Jewish families together across time. Those actions we pioneer express our individuality and concretize our special relationship with Gd and with the Torah. Whether the song we sing first at a Shabbos table, or the order in which we bless our children, or the special garment we wear when davening, we stamp our Judaism with our own seal. When our descendants keep these for themselves, that overlay of family links them back to us, merging generations of Jewish identity.

This is not something to be trifled with.

So I don't want people to change their family minhag for karpas, even as I advocate these other species. (Changing marror is more complicated, as I seriously question - echoing the words of many great poskim - the eligibility of horseradish root.) And I tried to explain that at the class. And I hit upon the perfect example of why minhag is so wonderful: Mah Nishtanah.

The script for Mah Nishtanah goes back to the Beit haMikdash (Temple) itself; one of the questions was altered when we were no longer able to bring the korban pesach (Pesach offering), but the rest remained the same. Which means that for well more than 2,000 years - we don't know just how far back, only that this text was common in Temple times, which ended in the year 68 C.E. - Jews, every year, around the world, living in a broad range of conditions, have sat at a seder table and put forth these same questions.

I try to imagine my great-grandparents in Western Europe; their great-grandparents in Poland; their great-grandparents in Turkey; before that in Spain; before that in Germany; before that in England; before that in Morocco; and so on. All of them, reclining at the table and listening to the youngest children ask these questions.

These particular questions are not a halachic requirement for the Seder; they are custom - but how could anyone remove them?

In truth, Mah Nishtanah is not the only text we have kept reciting for millenia; Shma is far older, and it is said daily. But the image of the family gathering, and the communal recitation, grabs me.

I am not fully articulating what is in my heart here; I am rushing this post, because there is no time to write it properly. But I hope I have conveyed the main point: for me, the connection is what minhag is all about. And finally, I have come to appreciate Mah Nishtanah.